Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past - My Portal Into an Unforgettable World
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then Link's return to form made for the ultimate homecoming.

It happened slowly and much later than I would have liked, but I wound up becoming a pretty big fan of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link--my appreciation for its aesthetic values and its side-scrolling, combat-focused take on the Zelda formula growing stronger by the play-through. Our relationship as of 1991, however, remained fairly frigid; as did many of the other neighborhood kids at the time, I continued to perceive Zelda II as a weird aberration and spoke of it as though it were an unworthy successor to the legendary original. Still polarized by its divergence, I chose to take up post at the front line of the large group that was eagerly anticipating the true follow-up to The Legend of Zelda.

Our prayers were answered with the arrival of Nintendo Power Volume 27, which unexpectedly revealed the existence of a "Zelda III" via a surprise late-page feature entitled "Developer Dispatch," which also formally introduced Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts (strangely, none of this was mentioned in the magazine's index). Having it sprung on me like that--from essentially out of nowhere--was quite a shock, and the excitement of the moment likely blinded me to the fact that the accompanying information was mostly fluff ("This game looks awesome!").

Well, let's be real: For a 12-year-old kid like me, it might as well have been instructions for how to legally raid Toys R Us' game vault considering the way I pored over every word and committed to memory every small detail about the game's massive overworld and its use of technological trickery. What interested me most, though, were the two darkly colored screenshots and the short plot summary, which combined to create the powerfully resonant mental imagery that would remain the source of my obsession for the next nine months. This Link and Zelda, I was told, were ancestors of the main players from the original game, and their tale of struggle would play out in a world whose structure and overhead view were highly reminiscent of the beloved NES classic's, which was all I needed to know.

Using just this scant amount of information, I was able to plot out a whole world in my head, envisioning a breathtakingly vast Hyrule whose landscape was formed by a wondrously designed, interconnected labyrinth of 16-bit forests, mountain ranges, lakes, caverns and dungeons. Future issues of Nintendo Power filled in the gaps, revealing the game's official title, "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past," and the full scope of its newly introduced Light World-Dark World mechanic, which as described set my imagination into overdrive as I scrambled to figure out what it could all mean. These feature pieces remained some of my most-revisited; I'd return to them again and again, day after day, for the purpose of thoroughly re-inspecting their detailed item listings, map illustrations, and sidebar comparisons to the NES progenitor.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was the first SNES game for which I was super-excited, my hype-level soaring to a peak not reached since dreams of an upcoming Mega Man 3 dominated every waking hour of my life.

For my friends and I, there was a lot to remember about the time of A Link to the Past's release: The ever-present sense of anticipation that overwhelmed our thoughts and influenced our daily conversations in the days preceding the game's arrival in stores. The celebratory atmosphere that permeated our homes as we tore into the game and held daily conferences to discuss our rate of progress. How we'd play it together and jointly explore a freshly new Hyrule as we did so many years before (or so it seemed to a bunch of fledgeling teenages to whom it might as well have been a decade). How it felt so very appropriate to immerse ourselves in its lush green world at a time when the season was growing warmer and our final grammar-school vacation drew near. And how its release coincided with our school's mid-April dance.

Oh, that was a weird night.

Specifically, our school's PTA, which was made up of a tight-knit group of mothers whose sons and daughters comprised our entire graduating class, wanted to do a bit more for us, so they generously set up their own funding mechanism and booked us a special function in advance of the traditionally held graduation and prom. For me, this dance and the game's release will forever be "linked" because I decided, for some reason, to bring the instruction manual to the catering hall where the event was being held (I kept it firmly tucked in my blazer's inner pocket). Where my classmates spent the entire night eating, dancing and conversing about their plans for high school, I spent an inordinate amount of time at the tables on the room's right side (the "boys' side") re-reading A Link to the Past's lovingly crafted backstory--intriguing occurrences like the creation of the Triforce; the people's desperate attempts to infiltrate the Golden Land; Ganon's conquest and the war that ensued; the arrival of Agahnim and the fallout of his mass deception; and how an entire history hinged on the efforts of a single purple-haired individual.

I loved the idea that the outcome of a silently ongoing war--its insidious influence largely invisible to Hyrule's populace--was dependent upon the actions of an oblivious hero who couldn't have known that his was the last stand in an ancient battle whose vast mythology entailed several large-scale conflicts between knights, monsters, gods, and other magically inclined beings. I didn't know how to feel about the humanizing of Ganon, whose character I thought was being somewhat diminished by its depiction as the unholy form of a mere "thief" named Ganondorf Dragmire, but the tale of his sinister coup definitely provided the backstory a desirable degree of emotional weight and contributed to an epic build-up that few other games had the chops to match. 

The manual's amazingly detailed storyline account was one of my favorite elements of the package, and I read through it so many times that I almost managed to memorize the entire thing.

On that night, A Link to the Past's riveting text served to nicely distract me from other pressing matters, like how ridiculously stupid it was to bring a video-game manual to a graduation-themed social gathering (I was an odd creature). More distressingly, my friend Dominick was involved in a particularly bad altercation, having been turned down for a dance--cruelly rejected and mocked--by a girl he'd had a crush on since the 2nd grade. Dominick was one of the smartest guys around, but he lacked the cognizance to see people for what they truly were; in this case, the girl, Tracy, was your typical rich snob who he should have known would never condescend enough to even acknowledge his existence. Some of our male classmates tried to console him in following, but it was no use; his was a rightfully enraged outburst halted only by a devastated silence. His mother was my ride home that night, and I remember that being one of the most awkward car trips ever.

It's one of my greatest regrets that I was so aloof that I didn't do more to comfort him in his time of need, choosing instead to sheepishly stand on the sidelines.

But we still had our Zelda.

Nintendo's latest was turning out to be another home run from a company whose games were continuing to positively shape our lives and provide us so many happy memories; Miyamoto and friends' was a top-shelf masterpiece whose magnificently designed world of magic, exploration and mystery remained an object of fascination to us for the entire summer of '92, our last before high school, and many seasons to come. 

As it was with Super Mario World, an important part of the experience was our putting to the test A Link to the Past's 16-bit graphical trickery as illustrated in Nintendo Power. From that angle, A Link to the Past was a series of memorable firsts: Knocking a knight into a pit and watching as it scaled its way down into oblivion. Using Link's spin-attack to tear up Hyrule Castle's shrubbery. Gauging every inch of the game's fancy Mode 7-powered map. Picking up and tossing bushes, rocks, pots and signs. Hopping down a cliff and arriving on a separate plane of what appeared to be a flat surface. Moving down a string of enemies with the Pegasus Boots. Deflecting Agahnim's projectiles back at him. And experimenting with all-new items like the Invisibility Cape and the block-creating Cane of Somaria, which we only knew from renderings.

All of it worked as advertised, each graphical effect and newly discovered mechanic working to rapturously define a familiar-yet-transcendant world.

Though, there was nothing else in A Link to the Past that was so moving that it could deliver a feeling as emotionally gratifying as when I took possession of the Master Sword, whose wielding was preceded by one of the most unforgettable sequences in gaming history. It lasted maybe all of ten seconds, but I remember being hopelessly absorbed in the moment as Link pulled the sword from its stone deposit and triggered a heroically composed, epically crescendoing ditty that washed over every surface of my room--the speakers of that 20-inch television unable to constrain its power--and left me covered in goosebumps. For those few fleeting seconds, I knew what it felt like to be hero, and my only disappointment was that I couldn't make the moment last longer; instead, I could only look forward to reliving that invigorating moment of triumph in a subsequent play-through. 

Since then, many a Zelda game has seen Link's procurement of the Master Sword, but not a single one has featured a cut-scene or a scripted event that has come close to matching the energy of its inspiration.

I'd like to mention more in the way of specific instances, but I don't think it's wise to do so. The whole of A Link to the Past's world is so richly coated with memories, honestly, that I'd wind up listing every interaction I could remember, my inclination being to highlight its every pixel; as is true of the original, I have a bevy of memories attached to each screen--to each unique location, character and ambiance--of the game's extraordinary interpretation of Hyrule. I recall every moment from the defining opening sequence, when Link ventures forth into the rainy night and courageously defies the intimidating castle guards in his search of his telepathic messenger, to the ultimate climax when that final silver arrow is plunged into the vulnerable frame of Ganon and all is set right.

Among games I'd return to incessantly, A Link to the Past stood near the top. I'd play half of it in afternoon (the Dark World's Swamp Palace being my chosen halfway point) and finish the rest at sundown. I'd marathon it on Sundays. I'd get together with friends, and we'd alternate control between dungeons like we used to do in the past. On the recommendation of my father, I'd bring my SNES along with me to the Trotta's house in Long Island and play some Zelda in between trips to their giant pool in the backyard. I played through it so many times in those first few years that I managed to map out the whole game in my head, including the locations of every item, heart piece, character and secret cave. For as long as I kept score, A Link to the Past was a perennial contender for the number-one position in my in monthly "Top 20" lists. I considered it a landmark game, worthy of being called one of the best ever created.

It played amazingly well, yes, but it was also aesthetically brilliant, its soft, vibrant color-schemes never yielding to even the harshest environments; it was a critical part of the experience to aimlessly wander about and let the game's vividly rendered sights envelop me. The rounded, fancifully designed trees, the engrossing backgrounds (like Death Mountain's scrolling cliff view and the celestially obscuring Tower of Ganon as seen from atop the Dark World pyramid), and the mountainous structures combined to create an irresistible setting, their agreeably mingled accumulation capable of absorbing all of the focus of my normally straying mind. I just liked being there, man.

Frankly, it's the only time a Light World-Dark World mechanic has ever worked for me. It was a novel idea and yet fully realized from the start; it was seamless in execution, granting the player instant access to two interesting worlds that shared structure but somehow felt remarkably distinct. No one has got it right since, which is to say that developers of games like Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and even future Zeldas have used it more as a game-extending gimmick--a way to increase the amount of real-estate and artificially double the play-time--while not understanding that it only works if the separate worlds are cohesive, quickly accessible, and function essentially as one.

Each music track could evoke from me a certain emotion: The iconic Kakariko Village theme allayed my feelings of stress and provided the temporary comfort I desired. The haunting, ominously heightening compositions of the Hyrule Castle and dungeon themes worked to add an additional layer of apprehension to my labyrinth exploration. I looked forward to visiting the Lost Woods, its light-refracting graphical effect and mysterious, quizzical theme supplying the perfect atmosphere for my contemplations about far-away places. The curiously quaint Dark World Spectacle Rock theme (heard when you first enter the Dark World as bunny) conveyed an preliminary sense of wonder--a temporary shield against the soon-to-be-realized bleak reality of this newly traveled land. And like the Dark World, itself, the mirrored Death Mountain theme was initially foreboding but ultimately rousing in its urgency.

The Hyrule overworld music was certainly an exceptional rendition of a classic piece, but I was more in love with its wistful counterpart--the Dark World theme, whose composition somehow successfully molded together conflicting feelings of despair and determination in the construction of a melody that filled me with a feelings of deep yearning, though I wasn't able to articulate why that was (maybe it was sadness over the fact that I'd never be able to physically visit such an alluring world or perhaps nostalgia for a quickly fleeting era of my life). The Dark World theme still possesses that same power 25 years later, and I occasionally load it up on Youtube and let it play in the background as inspirational accompaniment to my random ruminations.

And yet the piece that touched me the most was the credits theme, whose somber tones sought to guide my thoughts and accentuate the visual symphony--the staff roll, rotating Triforce parts, and a scrolling mountain background--that endeavored to give them physical shape. The previous ending sequence had worked so hard to lift my spirits and conclude on the highest of notes, so I wasn't expecting to be suddenly brought down by contrastingly melancholy credits music, which was an unusual tailpiece for a Nintendo game. But I gradually submitted to its tightening grasp, my mood turning pensive as I reflected upon Link's adventure and recalled its many memorable moments; I was sad that it was over--that I could never again have a "first experience" with A Link to the Past--but I was also content to let the music finish telling its story and conjure up images of future adventures through Hyrule. I made sure to tape the credits theme on my tape recorder the next time through so I could listen to it whenever I was feeling meditative.

A Link to the Past's soundtrack has since been remixed and rearranged several times over, but no interpretations of its music, I feel, can ever top the evocative, deeply resonant conveyance as produced by that unmistakable SNES sound chip.

Much like scattered Triforce shards, all of the game's separate pieces came together to form an awe-inspiring whole--a shining spectacle whose glow was worth basking in again and again. There were some blemishes, sure (combat could be a bit sloppy, most of the Dark World bosses fell too easily, having more than one bottled fairy in reserve could compromise the game's difficulty, and some rooms were stuffed with more enemies than either Link or the console could handle), but A Link to the Past continued to provide me inspiration and high-quality entertainment for years in following. And though I don't revisit the game quite as often as I used to, none of its magic has been lost; even a spontaneous Sunday-morning romp through the game's early portion will likely reaffirm that A Link to the Past still wields the power to transport me back to a time when a game was so much more than just the image that was appearing on the TV screen.

And though I've trekked over its hallowed ground dozens of times over the past 23 years, many of its secrets have long managed to avoid my detection; even when I think I've seen it all, the game A Link to the Past still has the ability to surprise me with its hidden depth. It wasn't until the mid-2000s, for instance, that I learned about using the bug-catching net to deflect Agahnim's projectiles. Watching hep cats like BriSulph and NintendoCapriSun play through it taught me that you could use magic powder to turn bubbles ("anti-faeries") into normal health-restoring fairies. Without the Internet, I might never have known how to access the platform with the cracked wall in Ganon's Tower--that dashing into a wall could propel you back and over that gap. Hell--before seeing that recent Game Grumps video, I had no idea that you could carry a fish back to Kakariko and sell it to the bottle salesman! I'm sure there's plenty more I haven't yet been made aware of, and I know I'll be just as delighted to find out about it.

A Link to the Past has been ported to other platforms (I haven't played the GBA version) but thankfully never remade. Like all other classics whose sensibilities are married specifically to the eras of their births, it doesn't need to be, and I'm glad Nintendo thought better than to go through with it. A Link Between Worlds, though exceedingly derivative in design, is a much better alternative--a "sequel" whose world is respectfully familiar but not meant to replace the treasured original. 

With any luck, the modern audiences it reaches will realize that its forefather, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, is an essential piece of history and not some relic of a bygone era.

No--they'll see it for what it is: A portal into a timeless world of magic, mystery and endless memories.

1 comment:

  1. I had a very similar anticipatory experience with Ocarina of Time - buying the game on day one (we preordered it and got the one with the gold cartridge), poring over the manual, having to wait through church so I could play it.

    I also have fond memories of taking game manuals with me to school - probably to remind me of something comparatively stress-free. Symphony of the Night and Final Fantasy VII spring to mind.

    As for LTTP, it was a staple of my childhood but I was a bit too young to experience it in the way you did. Certain parts were too difficult for me and it wasn't until I was a teen that I successfully completed the game.

    Link Between Worlds has been my favorite Zelda game of the last generation, mainly because it combines the theme and feel of LTTP with the non-linearity and exploring aspects of the original LOZ.